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Covid-19, conspiracies and the CIA - Digital Threat Digest

PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.

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In a manner horrifyingly reminiscent of March 2020, my week started with discourse on Covid-19, specifically of new variants. This déja vu was only made worse with new misinformation narratives spreading on social media; including the New York Post publishing ‘whistle-blower allegations’ that the CIA had paid six analysts to officially change their stance on the origins of the coronavirus – specifically directing them to reject the lab leak theory. This largely baseless and blatantly biased article—which came off the back of an anonymous letter written to a partisan Republican majority subcommittee on Covid-19—naturally resulted in renewed discourse on social media, particularly among far-right actors who began using the allegations to promote conspiracy theories. For example, my social media was rife with posts stating that "the 'deep state' has declared war on the people of America", "the conspiracy theorists were right again", and that "Biden forced Americans to be injected against our will". These claims use buzzwords to perpetuate 'us versus them' narratives, misleading users to politicise what should be a strictly medical conversation.

During the course of the pandemic, similar behaviours brought medical mis/disinformation into the mainstream. False narratives dominated both traditional social media platforms and newer video-sharing/closed forum sites (think BitChute and Rumble), enabling cross-platform engagement and discourse. The most far-fetched conspiracies became common debates. Online communities grew increasingly fragmented, creating threat actors that were later linked to real-world violence. In the USA, which became a hotbed for such content, this polarised the masses, fuelled public distrust, drove harmful self-medication (or complete non-medication), and villainised entire communities — real-world issues that still persist today.

I have previously written about the dangers of medical misinformation—which, to me, has a higher and often more direct potential to cause real-world harm. To see the same patterns begin to re-emerge online, with renewed force, is therefore unsettling. It brings to mind questions of de-radicalisation and digital resilience that are yet to be answered: How can we restore public trust? How can we prevent digital echo chambers from amplifying threat actors and verifiably false information? How can vulnerable users build their digital resilience?

The CIA whistleblower allegations reminded me that we still have a long way to go as a community. However, the growing global desire to tackle mis/disinformation makes me continue to believe in the glass-half-full approach – that hopefully, with the knowledge we now have on its impact, we can counter the threat before it implodes. Is that a realistic belief? Only time will tell.

More about Protection Group International's Digital Investigations

Our Digital Investigations Analysts combine modern exploitative technology with deep human analytical expertise that covers the social media platforms themselves and the behaviours and the intents of those who use them. Our experienced analyst team have a deep understanding of how various threat groups use social media and follow a three-pronged approach focused on content, behaviour and infrastructure to assess and substantiate threat landscapes.

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